Stoic Meditation in The Earl of Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen

Some quotes from the Earl of Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen, in which he describes a Stoic contemplative exercise.

Stoic Meditation

The Earl of Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen

The following passages from the Earl of Shaftesbury are based on his reading of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  He describes a common Stoic and Platonic meditation exercise, which essentially involves trying to contemplate the whole of space and time, as if entering the mind of God:


View the heavens. See the vast design, the mighty revolutions that are performed. Think, in the midst of this ocean of being, what the earth and a little part of its surface is; and what a few animals are, which there have being. Embrace, as it were, with thy imagination all those spacious orbs, and place thyself in the midst of the Divine architecture. Consider other orders of beings, other schemes, other designs, other executions, other faces of things, other respects, other proportions and harmony. Be deep in this imagination and feeling, so as to enter into what is done, so as to admire that grace and majesty of things so great and noble, and so as to accompany with thy mind that order, and those concurrent interests of things glorious and immense. For here, surely, if anywhere, there is majesty, beauty and glory. Bring thyself as oft as thou canst into this sense and apprehension; not like the children, admiring only what belongs to their play; but considering and admiring what is chiefly beautiful, splendid and great in things. And now, in this disposition, and in this situation of mind, see if for a cut-finger, or what is all one, for the distemper and ails of a few animals, thou canst accuse the universe. (Shaftesbury, Philosophical Regimen, Deity, p. 19)

After quoting Marcus Aurelius, ‚ÄúTo conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are‚ÄĚ, Shaftesbury wrote concerning the grand vision of the history of the universe, and the flux of things:

Consider the several ages of mankind; the revolutions of the world, the rise, declension and extinction of nations, one after another; after what manner the earth is peopled, sometimes in one part and then in another; first desert, then cultivated, and then desert again; from woods and wilderness, to cities and culture, again into woods; one while barbarous, then civilised, and then barbarous again; after, darkness and ignorance, arts and sciences, and then again darkness and ignorance as before.

Now, therefore, remember whenever thou art intent and earnest on any action that seems highly important to the world, whenever it seems that great things are in hand, remember to call this to mind: that all is but of a moment, all must again decline. What though it were now an age like one of those ancient? What though it were Rome again? What though it were Greece? How long should it last? Must not there be again an age of darkness? Again Goths? And shortly, neither shall so much as the name of Goths be remembered, but the modern as well as ancient Greeks and Italians be equally forgotten. […]

Such is the state of mankind; these are the revolutions. The tree sprouts out of the ground, then grows, then flourishes awhile; at last decays and sinks, that others may come up. Thus men succeed to one another. Thus names and families die; and thus nations and cities. What are all these changes and successions? What is there here but what is natural, familiar, and orderly, and conducing to the whole? Where is the tragedy? Where the surprise or astonishment? Are not these the leaves of the wood carried off with the winter blast, that new ones may in the spring succeed? Is not the whole surface of the earth thus? and are not all things thus? Is it not in these very changes that all those beauties consist which are so admired in nature, and by which all but the grossed sort of mankind are so sensibly moved? The sum of all this is, that be this what season soever of the world, be it the very winter that thou livest in, or be it in the spring, all is alike. (Shaftesbury, Philosophical Regimen, Human Affairs, pp. 70-71)

Ancient Healthcare and Modern Wellbeing Blog

Ancient Healthcare & Modern Wellbeing

“After reading a passage in which Marcus advocates this approach to himself, Patrick played a pre-recorded ‚ÄėView from Above‚Äô meditation. The text for this meditation was adapted slightly from D. Robertson‚Äôs The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy. […] This visualization was well-received and followed by lively discussion.”

The ancient healthcare and modern wellbeing blog contains an article describing the use of the View from Above meditation, derived from Stoicism.

The View from Above (Stoic Meditation Script)

Script for the Stoic meditation exercise known as “the view from above.”

The View from Above

Stoic Meditation Script

Socrates in the clouds
Socrates in Aristophanes’ The Clouds

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.

(This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now.)

Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth. (Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations)

Take a moment to settle into your posture and make yourself comfortable‚Ķ Close your eyes and relax‚Ķ [Pause.] Be aware of your breathing‚Ķ Notice the rhythm and pattern of the breath‚Ķ Do nothing for while, just be content to contemplate your breathing more deeply‚Ķ [Pause.] Now, begin by paying attention to the whole of your body as one‚Ķ From the top of your head, all the way down into your fingers and down into your toes‚Ķ Be aware of your body as one‚Ķ every nerve, muscle and fibre‚Ķ Don’t try to change anything. Don’t try to stop anything from changing‚Ķ Some things can change just by being observed‚Ķ

Just be content to notice whatever you notice, and feel whatever you feel… Be a passive, detached observer… As you continue to relax, turn your attention deeper within, and become more aware of your body… until you can almost imagine how you look right now… Begin to picture yourself as if seen from the outside… Now just imagine that you are taking a step back and looking at yourself. It really doesn’t matter how vividly you can picture yourself, it’s just the intention, just idea that matters. Imagine your body posture… your facial expression… the colour and style of your clothing…

Now keep looking at the image of yourself resting there, and imagine your own feet are gently leaving the ground. You begin floating serenely upwards, slowly and continuously, rising upwards. All the while your gaze keeps returning to your own body, now seated there below you as you rise above it. Keep looking down toward your body as you float higher and higher…. The roof and ceiling disappear, allowing you to float freely upward. Gazing down you see yourself seated comfortably below in the building, looking contented and contemplative. You see all the rooms, and any other people around.

As you continue to float gently higher and higher, your perspective widens more and more until you see the whole surrounding area. You see all the buildings nearby from above. You see the people in buildings and in the streets and roads. You observe people far below working, or walking along the pavement, people cycling or driving their cars, and those travelling on buses and trains. You begin to contemplate the whole network of human lives and how people everywhere are interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…

Floating higher, people become as small as ants below. Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you. You see both towns and countryside, and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the weather, and through the upper atmosphere of the planet Earth… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into outer space… You look toward planet Earth and see it suspended in space before you, silently turning… resplendent in all its majesty and beauty…

You see the whole of your home planet… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continental land masses… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the Earth… Though you can no longer see yourself from so far above, you know and feel that you are down there on Earth below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important. Your change in perspective changes your view of things, your values and priorities…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the Earth. The population of the planet is over six billion people… You realise that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the Earth… You think of the rich diversity of human life on Earth. The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems.

And yet as you gaze upon the planet Earth you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of stardust, adrift in the immeasurable vastness of cosmic space… This world of ours is merely a single planet, a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space… a tiny rock in space, revolving around our Sun… the Sun itself just one of countless billions of stars which punctuate the velvet blackness of our galaxy…

You think about the present moment on Earth and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole. You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless billions of species living upon the planet… Mankind arose as a race roughly two hundred thousand years ago… animal life itself first appeared on Earth over four billion years ago… Contemplate time as follows… Realise that if the history of life on Earth filled an encyclopaedia a thousand pages long… the life of the entire human race could be represented by a single sentence somewhere in that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless billions of years old… the life of the planet Earth too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed from the debris of an exploding star, unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up and consumed by the fires of our own Sun… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting with a cosmic explosion, a big bang they say, immeasurable ages ago in the past… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again… Who can imagine what, if anything, might follow, at the end of time, in the wake of our own universe’s demise…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants‚Ķ the mere blink of an eye‚Ķ the turn of a screw‚Ķ a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time‚Ķ Yet the ‚Äúhere and now‚ÄĚ is important‚Ķ standing as the centre point of all human experience‚Ķ Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time‚Ķ Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe‚Ķ bigger than the universe‚Ķ enveloping everything that can be conceived‚Ķ From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast‚Ķ

You contemplate all things, past, present and future‚Ķ You see your life within the bigger picture‚Ķ the total context of cosmic time and space‚Ķ The totality is absolute reality‚Ķ You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, something truly vast, the ‚ÄúAll‚ÄĚ itself‚Ķ Just as the cells of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a single cell in the organism of the universe‚Ķ Along with every atom in the universe you necessarily contribute your role to the unfolding of its grand design‚Ķ

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you realise that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… One stage at a time, you develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference… You follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great nature of the universe as a whole…

Now in a moment you are beginning to sink back down to Earth, toward your place in the here and now… Part of you can remain aware of the view from above, and always return to and remember that sense of serenity and perspective.

Now you begin your descent back down to Earth, to face the future with renewed strength and serenity… You sink back down through the sky… down… down… down… toward the local area… down… down… down… into this building… down… down… down… You sink back gently into your body… all the way now… as your feet slowly come to rest upon the floor once again…

Now think about the room around you‚Ķ Think about action‚Ķ movement‚Ķ think about looking around and getting your orientation‚Ķ raising your head a little‚Ķ Begin to breathe a little bit more deeply‚Ķ a little bit more energetically‚Ķ let your body feel more alive and ready for action‚Ķ breathe energy and vitality into your body‚Ķ breathe a little deeper and deeper again‚Ķ until you’re ready to take a deep breath, open your eyes, and emerge from meditation‚Ķ taking your mindfulness and self-awareness forward into life‚Ķ beginning now‚Ķ take a deep breath‚Ķ and open your eyes now‚Ķ when you’re ready‚Ķ entering the here and now with deep calm and serenity‚Ķ